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Reflections on Power and Powerlessness

Monday, 27 February 2012  | Siu Fung Wu

Last year Dr Andrew Sloane presented a superb John Saunders Lecture entitled Justifying Advocacy: A biblical and theological rationale for speaking the truth to power on behalf of the vulnerable (which was subsequently published in Engage.Mail and here on the Ethos website). It argues, in my view, convincingly, for the need and reasons for using our voice to advocate for and with the poor. In Dr Sloane’s words, “our voice is a God-given gift and responsibility – and expression of power really – which we must use for God’s glory and in service of the poor.” Sloane has much more to say in relation to exercising power on behalf of the poor, and I will interact with him briefly below. The purpose of this article, however, is not about “justifying advocacy” per se, but to build on what Sloane has said and reflect further on the biblical notion of power, especially in relation to the paradox of power in weakness.

More specifically, I will first challenge some common assumptions concerning the use of power. I will then take a look at Jesus’ own life to see how he interacted with the powerless in his days. After that I will examine Paul’s notion of “Christ crucified” and how it should underpin our understanding of power. I will finish with some reflections on how Paul seeks to model his leadership after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Like Dr Sloane’s lecture, this article is not intended to be a comprehensive study of power. Indeed it is not even an in-depth theological study on the topic. Rather, it outlines my reflections on power and powerlessness in my own faith journey. As someone who grew up in a factory in Asia, I experienced a degree of poverty and powerlessness. As a former pastor and current member of a small inner city church in Melbourne, I have walked with friends who have experienced various degrees of social disempowerment. And for over six years I have worked as an education officer at World Vision, a relief and development Christian organisation. The following is an attempt to outline what I have learned from these experiences.

Power is not necessarily evil, but cautions are needed
I think it is true, generally speaking, that in Australia many Christians are blessed with economic prosperity, compared with those living in low-income countries. For example, I now have more material possessions than I could ever imagine when I was a child in a working class family in Asia, even though for years I have been able to qualify for the full low-income tax offset in Australia. And every one of us possesses a social power that a lot of people in the world can only envy, namely, democratic rights. In addition, not a few Christians hold positions of authority in workplaces and churches. As Dr Sloane says, power is God’s gifts to the community. Indeed, power is not in and of itself evil. We who hold any form of economic, social and institutional powers should not feel guilty about the possession of power, but to take the responsibility to exercise those powers as servants of God. Having said that, I would like to alert ourselves to two matters that we often neglect.

The first is in fact quite obvious. Both the rich and the poor are equally prone to sin. We cannot guarantee that we will always exercise our power with integrity. Second, and perhaps less obvious, we need to be aware that we who are in positions of power cannot truly understand what it means to be powerless. A wealthy landowner in a low-income country cannot fully understand what it means to be a subsistence farmer. The former can easily survive a couple of years of drought, but the latter’s whole livelihood would be affected. My son, who spends most of his spare time on Lego, will not understand his Dad, who spent most of his childhood working in a factory. Most of us cannot understand the marginalisation that some mental health patients suffer from. And we have no idea what it is like to be a genuine refugee and have to live in a detention centre in Australia for months or even years.

These cautions should not stop us from exercising the powers we have. But we do need to stay vigilant, remain humble, and allow the Scripture and the Holy Spirit to speak to us all the time. We must be aware that when we fail to act justly it is the poor and needy who suffer most. Importantly, we need to let the voice of the powerless be heard. By virtue of their social and economic condition, the poor are often powerless to make their voice known. On the contrary, by virtue of their wealth and social superiority, the rich have the power to ensure that their voice speaks louder. Thus we need to make an effort to listen to the voice of the voiceless. It pays to get to know people living with disability. Our worldview will change if we spend time with asylum seekers and refugees in our cities. Our lives will be transformed when we learn to appreciate the resilience and tenacity of the poor.

But being vigilant is not always sufficient. I want to suggest that sharing our power with the powerless can reduce the injustice that is embedded in our systems and structures. Our church boards and deaconates are examples of power sharing. They ensure that there are checks and balances in the decision making process. A functioning democratic system is another example. Our governments in Australia are accountable to their voters, each of them has equal democratic rights. In fact, it is on the basis of our democratic system that, Micah Challenge (the Christian campaign that speaks up against poverty and injustice) can hold our Federal Government accountable to our overseas aid policy.

In broad terms, power sharing is an acknowledgement of the fact that we are all image-bearers of God. No human being is inferior to another. Mechanisms of power sharing can help to ensure that a person’s power over the others is not permanent or without checks and balances. All too often poverty and social injustice are a result of power imbalance. If you are born in a poor family in a low-income country, you may not have the opportunity to go to university even though you have exceptional intellectual ability. But if you are wealthy, you can ensure that your children and their children have the best education. In this way your family will always be in a better socioeconomic status than others. But if you use your economic power to help others to have better education, one day your family may no longer have economic superiority over everyone else, but you have helped others to have an equal opportunity to flourish as God’s image-bearers.

Likewise, ethical shopping and investment are means by which we Australian consumers may share our economic power so that low-income earners around the world may not be exploited. In the short term we may have to pay a bit more for our chocolate and coffee, but in the long term everyone gets a fair wage. Another example is how we run our local churches. We may want to include in our leadership team people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those living with disability, so that they are involved in the decision making process. I know a church that does that and it works quite well.

So, we who are in positions of socioeconomic power should exercise our privileges with integrity, and we need to make genuine effort to listen to the voice of the powerless. In addition, let us freely share our power with others, for we are all God’s image-bearers. In a sense, this is what Paul is trying to say to the Corinthians when he exhorted them to share their resources with those who are less fortunate. Paul’s point seems to be that our love is proved genuine if we lay down our riches for the sake of others, and that is how we respond to God’s grace and follow Jesus’ way of life.

Be the best in this work of grace in the same way that you are the best in everything, such as faith, speech, knowledge, total commitment, and the love we inspired in you. I’m not giving an order, but by mentioning the commitment of others, I’m trying to prove the authenticity of your love also. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty. (2 Corinthians 8:7-9; CEB)

Jesus and the cross
I agree with Dr Sloane that Jesus’ understanding of his mission can be traced back to the Old Testament. Jesus’ use of Isaiah 58:6; 61:1, 2 in Luke 4:18-21 is a good example, where he says that he is the anointed One and his mission is to proclaim good news to the poor. At the same time I find it remarkable that Christ, the anointed son of David, did not use his kingly power to maintain justice through his royal authority. Rather, Jesus was born in a manger (a feeding trough for animals) and had to escape to Egypt as a refugee when he was a child. He spends an enormous amount of time with the marginalised and oppressed – the blind, the lepers, the woman who was crippled, the prostitutes and tax collectors. He lived among them and stood in solidarity with them. It seems that Jesus affirmed and embraced the Old Testament teaching of justice and compassion for the poor, but at the same time transformed it into a striking sacrificial way of life. The Son of God and Messiah of Israel identified with frail humans and shared their joy and pain, not least the poor and needy. It seems, then, true power is found in his participation in humanity, which includes walking with the vulnerable and oppressed.

Paul captures the notion of power in weakness really well. Paul’s theology is, of course, centred upon the death and resurrection of Jesus. In his first letter to the Corinthians he speaks of his determination to preach the crucified Christ. He says: "Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Corinthians 1:22-24; NIV)

First century Jews looked for signs because they were expecting their God to send a powerful leader like Moses or David to deliver them from the hands of the Romans. That is, to use powerful and splendid signs to overcome their enemies. Jesus, however, did the very opposite. He died on a Roman cross, which was a symbol of shame and humiliation. Indeed, it was the means by which the Romans showed their superiority and control over the people they had conquered. First century Greeks looked for wisdom because they were zealous for all kinds of learning. It was simply beyond human reasoning to think that the saviour of the world would be a weak and defeated criminal on a Roman cross. For the ancient Greeks, it was not right for the alleged saviour of the universe to be dishonoured in public and suffer disgrace. Yet this is the type of saviour Paul proclaims in his gospel.

It seems then, “Christ crucified” is a counter-cultural oxymoron. Christ is indeed the Davidic anointed King of Israel. Yet this royal King died on the Roman cross. But it is precisely because of this that God raised him from the dead and exalted him to the highest place (Philippians 2:6-11).

I agree with Sloane that our use of power must be “Christomorphic”, and that the renunciation of all forms of socioeconomic power may not a universal call for all Christians. But I want to suggest that Christ’s cruciform pattern of life is one that all followers of Jesus should model after. It seems to me that the power of God is manifest in Christ’s suffering and obedient death on the cross. The right use of power, then, is about embodying the same cruciform way of life.

Paul’s cruciform leadership
But how does this cruciform power work? I find Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians really helpful. Most scholars recognise that some members of the Corinthian house churches were unhappy with Paul’s leadership, and he has to defend his apostleship in his letter. Paul does not deny his apostolic calling. But his view of the right use of power is thoroughly based on the life pattern of the crucified Christ and risen Lord. He repeatedly speaks of his sufferings in the letter (2 Corinthians 6:3-10; 11:23-33; 12:10).  In his hardships he finds that there is an all-surpassing power to sustain him, and it is this life of affliction that displays the life of Christ (4:7-12). For Paul, the Christian life is about being conformed to the image of Christ and in the process our lives reflect God’s glory (3:18; 4:5-6). Importantly, Paul says that power is made perfect in weakness, and therefore he will boast all the more his weakness, so that Christ’s power may become visible to the world (12:9). He utters this astonishing statement,

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

On one level this teaching is about how we should rely on Christ in our own hardships. But given the context of Paul’s defence of his apostolic credentials this reveals Paul’s understanding of his authority and power as a leader. Power, then, is about embodying the paradox of the cross. There is no resurrection without death. Strength is found in weakness. Glory is found in a life of suffering, sacrifice and love.

Power and powerlessness for us today
In summary, Jesus is indeed the Messiah of Israel, that is, the anointed King who was to come, as anticipated by the prophets. Based on this, Jesus announced his mission to proclaim good news to the poor. Of course, salvation and forgiveness of sin is available to all – both the rich and the poor. But undeniably Christ’s ministry was characterised by his solidarity with the social outcasts and economically disadvantaged. It is true that Jesus used his power to heal the sick and deliver those under the bondage of evil spirits. But he did not exercise any political, social or economic power that one would expect from the royal son of David. Quite the contrary, he died on a Roman cross, which was a symbol of Rome’s dominion over its subjects. But at his obedient death God raised him up, and exalted him to the highest place. Paul bases his ministry on this Christ-story, and models his own life on the paradox of power in powerlessness. He determines not to use worldly power to respond to his opponents. Instead, he ensures that the power of Christ is manifest in his weakness. Both Christ and Paul know what it means to be powerless. Christ is the rightful King, because he was crucified and raised to life. Paul is determined to follow him, and we are called to go and do likewise.

At this point my readers would naturally ask, “What does this mean to us today?” I believe every individual and every Christian community needs to seek God and find out how they can embody the cross in their own contexts. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

But I can tell you stories of how ordinary people – those who seek to embody Christ’s way of life in Australia. Some seek to share their social, economic and intellectual powers with others. Some even give up their socioeconomic privileges to follow Christ. And they all resolve not to use their power in a worldly fashion. I know a young professional who gave up his career about 17 years ago to be involved in ministry, and his family has been living on a low income since then. Life can be difficult, but they know that it is worthwhile. I know a professor of the Old Testament who has spent years to work with Indigenous Australians to advocate for their rights and to bring healing and reconciliation. I know a lady who frequently travels overseas and works within low-income communities as a community worker. She funds her work using her investment and lives a modest lifestyle. There is a highly educated couple who have moved into one of the worst socioeconomic areas in Sydney with their young family, so as to identify with the people there. And I know a good friend who is a consultant psychiatrist, who believes that his calling is to work in a public hospital for the mentally sick, rather than earning megadollars in a private practice. I also know an outstanding doctor and researcher in medicine, who decided to take early retirement to work full time as a minister in a small inner city parish. None of them is quite like Mother Teresa, but they all seek to use their powers, privileges and abilities in ways that will glorify God.

In my own church community in an inner city suburb, we seek to be a home for people from all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. We share the joy and pain of everyday life. We struggle and hope together, and seek to experience God’s all-surpassing power in our weaknesses.

I remember the days when I had to work very long hours in a very cramped and noisy factory in Asia. I wished I had the power of those living in the affluent West. But now I believe that true power is found in the power of Christ, who died on the Roman cross for a sinful humanity. Amazing love and sacrifice! Who else can I follow?


(I thank Dr Tim Gombis for reading the first draft of this article and giving me his encouraging comments. Of course, I alone am responsible for the content of this article.)

Written by Siu Fung Wu, 14th February 2012


Jim Reiher
March 7, 2012, 11:15AM
Thanks Siu Fung. Terrific analysis and reflections. ... I was nearly going to say "more power to you"... but that would seem inappropriate. Kind of. :-)

let me say instead: "may the message of Christ Crucified and our response to that, spread"!

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